Why the Oilers’ revamped lineup was key in crucial Game 4 win


EDMONTON — The third period had been like kryptonite to the Edmonton Oilers of late, something that needed to change if they were going to have any hope of beating the Dallas Stars.

Starting with the final contest of the Vancouver series when they were scored on twice and held on for dear life, the Oilers entered Wednesday having allowed seven goals while not netting even one over the previous four third frames.

There was no better time for the Oilers to alter course, especially since they had a two-goal lead entering the second intermission. They did just that in Game 4.

The Oilers put on a masterclass in defending over the final 20 minutes, limiting the Stars to just eight shots on net and barely any of them of any particular danger. It was the final nail in a resounding 5-2 win, capped by a Mattias Ekholm empty-netter, that evened the Western Conference final at two victories apiece.

“That was our best third period (of the playoffs),” winger Connor Brown said. “We went out and didn’t back off their blue line. We held our lines. Held our gaps. We pressed. We didn’t back up at all. We attacked.

“We didn’t do anything crazy, but we were continuing to make plays and attack the game.”

The Oilers haven’t made life easy on themselves in the latter stages of the last four games.

They sat back so much in Game 7 against the Canucks that they were barely able to escape an avalanche full of pressure.

They were perhaps unluckier than anything else in the third periods of the first three games against the Stars. In addition to two empty net goals, Tyler Seguin was the beneficiary of a fortunate play that resulted in a tap-in, Mason Marchment tipped in a goal and Jason Robertson banked a sharp-angle shot off Stuart Skinner.

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However, the Oilers didn’t push the play, nor did they do enough to keep their opponents at bay.

Their Game 4 work was considerably better. The Oilers held the Stars to 15 shot attempts and just one high-danger opportunity, per Natural Stat Trick, in all situations.

“We rolled lines,” Leon Draisaitl said. “Everyone was staying fresh, stayed above them and made the right decisions at the lines. What did we give up: one look on the power play in the slot? Very mature. Very well done.”

“That’s how we want to play,” coach Kris Knoblauch said.

They played smart. They were detailed.

“We were above them all period and we didn’t let them in behind us,” veteran winger Corey Perry said. “To play against these guys, you have to be above them. You can’t let them play off the rush. That’s where they kill you.”

The way the Oilers closed out the game was the highlight, especially given how things have gone for them lately in that regard.

It was a team effort that pushed the Oilers over the finish line — just as it was throughout the night. Only two skaters played more than 20 minutes: Ekholm (24:26) and fellow top pair defender Evan Bouchard (23:46).

It closed out a game that saw fourth-liner Mattias Janmark score the winning goal in the second period by finishing a pass from Brown on a short-handed two-on-one. That was part of the Oilers killing off two more penalties. They’re now a perfect 9-for-9 in the series and 41-for-44 in the postseason.

That’s how the Oilers’ role players have made an impact more than anything against a supposedly deeper Dallas squad.

“Our teams are built different,” Janmark said. “I don’t think their team has the top players that we have. It’s obvious they have three lines that are A, B and C, and our top-six scores, so it’s hard to challenge that way.

“But we knew we could contribute and maybe in different ways than their depth. It’s a challenge, and we’ve been up for it so far.”

This was always going to be a different type of win if the Oilers were going to get the job done.

Knoblauch and the coaching staff opted to torch their lineup from Game 3 by inserting three new players, while leaving only the top line and the Ekholm-Bouchard duo intact — plus Skinner in net.

In came Perry, Ryan McLeod and Philip Broberg to replace Warren Foegele, Sam Carrick and Vincent Desharnais, respectively. Those changes completely altered the makeup of the team.

Perry and McLeod got the plum assignment of playing alongside Draisaitl, which bumped his previous wingers, Evander Kane and Dylan Holloway, down to a line with Adam Henrique. Broberg’s addition jumbled two pairings. He played with Cody Ceci, whereas lefty Brett Kulak was moved to Darnell Nurse’s right side.

All that resulted in McLeod getting the Oilers on the board with an assist from Perry — the first playoff point for both players — after they’d gone behind 2-0 and Broberg skated 14:21, a career high of his 11 NHL postseason games.

“Our depth is good enough that it’s hard for him to make these decisions,” Draisaitl said. “If you take someone out, you have someone waiting outside your lineup that’s ready to go and wants to make an impact and that’s good enough to make an impact.

“That’s what good teams have. That’s what winning teams have.”

The switches had ripple effects, too.

Nurse, who’s come under fire for his play throughout the postseason, had arguably his best performance while playing next to Kulak. He had an assist on McLeod’s goal to go along with 12 hits and four blocked shots in 19:19.

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“A lot of things that he does go unnoticed,” Draisaitl said. “He plays extremely hard. Maybe his confidence hasn’t been where we’ve all seen it be, but those things happen. That’s normal. He’s a human being. Tonight was a great step for him. I thought he was outstanding.”

It sure didn’t seem like that was going to be the case early as the Oilers played a terrible first half of the opening period, which left Knoblauch wondering if his team was doomed.

Wyatt Johnston scored 58 seconds in, the third time in the playoffs Skinner allowed a goal on the first shot of a game and the 10th such occurrence when throwing in the regular season. Nurse was the lone defenseman back on a two-on-one.

The Nurse-Kulak duo was on the ice for the next goal against, too. An Esa Lindell point shot hit Nurse in the pants and beat Skinner at 5:29.

“Two tough bounces to start the game and he settles in and plays probably his best game of the playoffs and leads us to a victory,” Brown said. “That’s character right there.”

When Knoblauch’s moves showed themselves in pregame warmups, they came across as panicked.

McLeod and Perry on the second line? Kulak playing right defense when he’s played no more than a handful of shifts there since being acquired in March 2022? Playing Broberg in his first meaningful NHL game in a six-defenseman scheme since October?

What’s next? Putting Jack Campbell in net?

But all the rookie coach’s decisions worked out.

“It’s not easy, his first time in the playoffs. He’s making gutsy calls,” said Brown, who was scratched for the entire Los Angeles series and Game 2 against Vancouver. “Credit to the guys. It’s not easy to come off the press box right into the second line, playing on Leo’s wing.

“They did an unbelievable job. That second line was the best line tonight for us and it was a gutsy win.”

But for everything that happened on Wednesday, it was the way the Oilers played in the third period that was the capper.

It was what solidified the victory. It made the series a best of three.

“Every win gives you a bit more belief,” Draisaitl said. “Every team at this point in time in the year that’s still playing has a lot of belief in what they do. We’re one of those teams.

“We know how good we can be and when we put everything together, we’re a really hard team to beat.”

It defined it more than anything else. And what a welcome change compared to the previous four games.

“That’s a big momentum-builder for us in the third period, which has been something that we needed to improve upon in these playoffs,” Brown said. “It’s something to build on.

“It’s the biggest part of this win.”

(Photo: Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)



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